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Ekstrom Library

English 102 Information Literacy Activities and Lesson Plans: Exploring the Information Ecosystem

Activity Guide: Exploring the Information Ecosystem

Audience: English 102

Duration: 50 minutes

Tools/Technology: Padlet (optional) / "Exploring the Information Ecosystem" Worksheet (optional)

Learning Outcomes:

  • Distinguish among common types of information sources (news, scholarship, social media, government documents, archival sources, Wikipedia, etc.) and explain the potential value of these sources in relation to academic research.
  • Identify appropriate evaluative criteria to determine the relative reliability and relevance of particular information sources.
  • Recognize the role of academic databases within the information ecosystem and conduct basic searches in at least one particular database.

Description: While most first-year students regularly search Google for information as part of their daily lives, they often lack a nuanced understanding of the different types of sources they encounter online. They may have difficulty evaluating the reliability of sources and determining when it's appropriate to use a particular source. This is partly because the larger context of the information ecosystem (i.e., the people and organizations that produce the sources, as well as the interests they represent) is largely invisible in a list of Google search results. Thus, the primary goal of this lesson plan is to help students develop a greater appreciation for the diversity and complexity of the information ecosystem, while simultaneously teaching them the basics of searching academic databases and evaluating information in an academic context.

Part 1: Google and the Information Ecosystem (15 minutes): Begin by asking the students where they typically go to find information. Students may give a variety of answers, but, inevitably, the conversation will lead to Google. Ask everyone to go to Google, then, as a class, generate a topic to search. This might be something related to the class or current events. Or it might be something humorous or surprising. Try to pick an engaging topic that students might actually be interested in and that has some sort of academic angle.

After returning search results, use the following questions (not necessarily all of them and not necessarily in this order) to discuss Google and the concept of the "information ecosystem."

  • Where does all this information come from? Who produced it? How did it get on Google?
  • How does Google decide the order of the search results? Are there really millions of results?
  • Why does Google allow us to divide our results into categories such as News, Videos, Shopping, and so on? Why does Google provide search tools (e.g., publication date) and advanced options (e.g., site/domain searching)?
  • Given all the options, how do we decide what to click on? Which sources are reliable? Do we scroll through all the results?

The idea here is to foster more nuanced critical thinking about what Google is, the diversity of sources it provides access to, and the challenges involved in evaluating both reliability and relevance. Keep in mind that students already know that online content may be unreliable, but it's important that they move past binary, either/or thinking (reliable/unreliable) and begin to think more deeply about context, purpose, audience, and point of view when evaluating sources. Possible points to consider in the discussion include:

  • Google is a company operating within the marketplace. Other entities (e.g., companies, journalists, governments, scholars, artists, authors, Wikipedia volunteer editors, conspiracy theorists, con artists, all of us on social media, etc.) produce the content, and Google profits from it through advertising revenue. What we see on Google is influenced by various factors (including popularity; search engine optimization; our own previous searches/personalized searching). The actual quality of the information we see (not to mention its relevance for our specific purpose) may be compromised by these issues. The fact that search results are inflated provides evidence that Google serves its own interests. In addition, much of what we find online exists to make money, either directly or indirectly.
  • The information ecosystem is complex and diverse. We see a wide variety of source types in a typical list of Google results, representing a variety of interests, audiences, and points of view. These sources go through various levels of review (or perhaps no review at all). Editors and fact-checkers review the content produced by reputable news organizations, while volunteers review the content of Wikipedia. Some content is not reviewed by anyone. We also hear a lot about malicious "fake news" and propaganda, but we also have to be aware that all sources have their biases and perspectives. Furthermore, we can't really judge the quality of a news organization or a website by looking at a single article out of context. We learn what to trust through time and experience. And we should always look at multiple sources.
  • Search options (such as searching only Google News or searching a specific site or domain) help us explore the information ecosystem in a more precise way. We can narrow down to particular types of content, depending on what we need.

Part 2: The Components of the Information Ecosystem (15 minutes): At this point, segue into a discussion of the different types of information sources and how they might be used. Brainstorm a list of source types with the students, based on the previous conversation. The list might include:

  • Wikipedia
  • News articles and videos
  • Government websites
  • Non-profit websites
  • Scholarly research articles and books
  • Social media

Obviously, this list isn't comprehensive. Choose the source types that are most relevant to the class. Then, in small groups or as a class, the students should discuss (1) what kind of information do these sources generally provide and (2) how do you judge the reliability of these sources.  

The goal is to reinforce the idea that there are a wide variety of source types and any type of source may be viable for research, depending on the context. I might use Wikipedia or general websites for background information, a government or non-profit website for data/statistics, a news story for current information, a blog or tweet for an opinion, and a scholarly article for in-depth research. 

You should conclude the discussion by highlighting the importance of authority and evidence in evaluating the reliability of sources. Authority can come from many places: academic expertise; personal experience; eyewitness observation; peer review (or another form of review); etc. This provides an opportunity to introduce the concept of peer-review (which can be related to other forms of review discussed above). Be sure to emphasize that the quality of evidence provided in a source (which can be difficult to evaluate at first glance) is of central importance. One reason that review processes are important is that they help establish trust with the reader.

Now, introduce the students to Google Scholar and explain how it searches a subset of the information ecosystem: scholarly information. You should emphasize that not everything in Google Scholar is peer-reviewed in the traditional sense and, more importantly, that a significant amount of content lives behind paywalls. Access to peer-reviewed scholarship is a privilege, as these sources are incredibly expensive.

Part 3:  The Scholarly Information Ecosystem/Databases (20 minutes): The preceding discussion and activities should enable you to segue smoothly to the last part of the session, which focuses on library databases. The library represents a subset of the information ecosystem, providing access to expensive peer-reviewed publications that aren't freely available online, along with other types of traditional, vetted sources (news, magazines, books, etc.). You might also mention the unique archival sources that libraries provide access to in both physical and digital formats.

The remainder of the session should be based on the needs of the class and the assignment. Typically, you will introduce the students to LibGuides and EBSCO Academic. Avoid spending time lecturing about how to use the database. Instead, quickly show students how to access EBSCO Academic and encourage them to try out some different searches. You might ask the students to find one article that seem especially relevant for their projects and then share them with each other or the class as a whole. You might have them consider these questions as they search, then discuss as a large group:

  • How does searching a library database differ from searching Google? How are the sources similar to and different from what you might find through Google?
  • What tools are available in a library database to help make your search more precise [multiple search boxes, search limiters, subject headings, abstracts, etc.]

*Portions of this lesson plan are inspired by teaching materials developed by Lane Wilkinson (University of Tennessee at Chattanooga) and Jacob Berg (Foreign Service Institute).

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